This blog has chronicled the feelings of bus operators who have been threatened or assaulted, but transit safety encompasses all Portlanders and those who visit. We expect others to adhere to commonly-accepted behavior most would say is "normal." The past decade has brought about a riding public that is increasingly withdrawn. Most of my own passengers tend to find a seat and immediately enter the technology zone which I call "plugged in and tuned out." As one who rides transit to work each day, I've joined these ranks. It's easier for me, in full uniform, to ignore what's going on around me. I don't want to be bothered, so I retreat into a Do Not Disturb zone. People ask me the strangest questions, as if I'm always on duty or have the entire transit system's schedules memorized. They get angry, often insulting, if I don't have answers to their queries. I've even gone so far as to fake incoming phone calls in hopes they'll... just... leave me alone.
This behavior I once scorned is now how I conduct myself as a passenger. This has me feeling guilty and somewhat ashamed. Had I been riding that fateful MAX line, I might not have paid any attention to the scene around me. Yet what if I had jumped up, feeling duty-bound as an operator in uniform to join those three men who tried to stop the harassment of two teenage girls? Poor behavior is something we see every day, and to a point we're expected as employees to intervene. Signs on transit vehicles implore riders to "report any suspicious activity" to transit workers. Wearing a uniform qualifies me as a bona-fide transit official. Had I been riding that fateful train, it's likely somebody would have pulled me out of my protective shell, directing my attention to the offensive rant taking place. And yes, I would have felt compelled to intervene. As a transit worker, one who tries to be protective and sympathetic toward others. Also as a son, brother, husband, father, uncle, grandfather, friend and membership in this odd affliction known as humanity. It is also likely I wouldn't be sitting here writing to you today. Instead, you might be remembering me with the other victims. Like those men who unknowingly risked their lives to help, I too wouldn't have recognized any imminent danger. Nobody could have.
We all know life is fleeting. Loved ones have been snatched from us without warning, leaving us stunned and grieving. One moment you're having a fun conversation with someone, and the next you're in shock, wondering how they could just be so suddenly... gone. Our hearts beat out a rhythm that can and does, stop without warning. Very early in life, I lost someone so special to me her death shocked me into a years-long mourning. Her laughter lifted me, her love helped nurture my soul. As years dropped away, I began to adopt her sunny outlook. Thanks to her, I try to help people smile, to laugh, and feel comfortable in my presence. I know she would have jumped up and tried to calm the aggressor in that attack last month.
Our society has allowed violence to blossom. We're politically divided to such extremes it's often too volatile to debate issues which face us all. If you don't agree with one or another rigid political platform, you can be verbally and physically abused. The days of debate, compromise and cooperation seem a dream of long ago. We're divided and argumentative to a point not seen since the American Civil War began in 1861.
At this point in 2017, local transit workers have been assaulted, threatened or menaced 35 times. Last year, we experienced 55 such incidents, so this year's total-to-date is on target to reach 70. We're all wondering if one of us will be murdered before somebody in authority stands up and takes serious action. Simple signs on vehicles aren't enough. Mild media rebukes and sensational reports only tend to encourage violators to take their violence to new heights. Assailants don't care about penalties, because some charges can be plea-bargained. If it were up to me, an aggressive act toward any of my valuable employees would result in the harshest of penalties. Evidently, we're not valued enough for this to happen. We've seen operators punished for biological responses to threats, blamed for passenger misconduct, and generally portrayed as poorly-trained and greedy nincompoops.
Even though I'm not superhuman, I continue to perform my job as best I can. I've been highly-trained and re-certified every year. My safety record is good, and I work hard to keep everyone around me comfortable through my smooth driving and calm authority. But we're in a state of emergency that worsens every week. It makes me shudder to write this, but I believe one of us will die before drastic measures are taken to ensure a safer ride for all.
I honor the sacrifices of those who stepped up on that MAX train last month. As transit workers, we mourn with our city and the world for the two who died so violently. As members of this community, we plead with our union, transit management and legislative bodies to heed our call to take a stand for the protection of all. As a bus operator, I pray for everyone's safety and pledge to keep doing the best job I can. It's all I know to do.